By Lou Ann Anderson
In life, Brooke Astor represented the best of New York high society exemplifying gracious living and philanthropic generosity. That she, in her last years, would become an alleged victim of elder abuse was unimaginable. And in death, Brooke is still making headlines as Anthony Marshall, her only child, is on trial for looting his mother’s estate of nearly $200 million. As Marshall and codefendant attorney Francis X. Morrissey, also charged with stealing from the estate and of forging Brooke’s signature on an estate document, are on trial in a Manhattan courtroom, it is important to understand the implications of this case as similar grave robbing and property poaching acts are taking place across the U.S. Other targets are not celebrities, the estate values are far more modest, but Involuntary Redistribution of Assets (IRA) – the use of probate venues or probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney) to steal from the dead and disabled/incapacitated – is becoming a lucrative business with Americans of all economic levels at risk.
Brooke Astor did not fail to perform proper estate planning. That’s routinely the position put forth by the legal industry, but in reality, it’s often a self-serving excuse. Defrauding estates is on the rise because in today’s society, it’s relatively easy to accomplish. The most important lesson of this case is that if a woman with Brooke Astor’s savvy and resources was unable to surround herself with a network of trusted individuals knowledgeable of her wishes and armed with documents to protect her and her property upon incapacitation and/or death, why should anyone else think their chances for success are better?
The Marshall/Morrissey case is being handled as a criminal action. Most IRA cases are viewed as “family” disputes and are relegated to civil venues financially out of reach for many potential complainants and cost prohibitive for others as litigation expenses may offset the value of assets being disputed. This is a point known to would-be grave robbers and it is why American estates of moderate means are desirable targets.
While the organizations and individuals originally designated to receive portions of the Astor fortune will at some point have to engage in civil action, the criminal case outcome and high profile nature of the case will hopefully set a tone that will deter some of the civil venue gamesmanship and contrived expenses to which estate dispute litigants are often subjected.
Many media accounts have addressed the relationship of Brooke Astor and her son. The general consensus is that for much of Anthony Marshall’s life, Brooke’s attention was centered on her second and third husbands (neither of whom was Marshall’s father) and each couple’s respective life. Upon the death of Vincent Astor, Brooke’s focus shifted to her philanthropic endeavors. Marshall’s diminished status apparently fostered a lifelong sense of resentment, exclusion and unfulfilled entitlement that permanently influenced his interactions with Brooke and were made worse after Marshall’s 1992 marriage to his third wife Charlene. Entitlement, real or otherwise, is probably the most common motivator of modern day property poaching and grave robbing.
The same family dynamics that influenced this case are common in many families and can serve as impetus or perceived justification for diverting assets in a manner contrary to the intentions of an incapacitated or deceased person. The same can be said of the methods. Anthony Marshall is alleged to have physically isolated his mother within her home, socially isolated her from trusted household staff and friends, encouraged withholding of medical attention, engaged “professionals” supportive of his positions, terminated relationships with anyone potentially questioning his actions and so on. These same tactics are commonly seen in other IRA cases. While the number of digits in an estate’s dollar value may vary, human behavior and other contributing factors generally aren’t so different.
It is important to note that lawyers aren’t required for the perpetration of IRA actions, but they can be major players as evidenced by the indictment of Francis X. Morrissey. Per published accounts, Morrissey has a problematic professional history including reports of financial misappropriation from a former employer and a suspension by the New York State Supreme Court. Other reports describe a pattern of befriending elderly millionaires and helping them to change their estate plans so that upon death, Morrissey receives significant bequests. Elder law is a fast-growing legal specialty area. As this category inherently caters to clients with a higher likelihood of diminished capacity or vulnerability, what a boon for legal predators seeking easy marks! Morrissey may have sought out his clients at social bastions such as Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Club, but plenty of his “walker stalker” counterparts are at work across this country cruising Chamber of Commerce socials, senior center gatherings, grief support groups and other locations (or communities) with a concentration of retired individuals. Wealth is relative and times are tough. Beware that a multi-million dollar estate is not required for becoming an attractive IRA target.
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the opportunities lost. From major recipients like the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to countless other non-profits, numerous organizations benefitted from the philanthropic activities of Brooke Astor and some were designated to receive additional funds upon her death. Marshall instead is alleged to have orchestrated having a questionably competent Brooke sign a codicil to her will in which he personally replaced the charities as his mother’s ultimate beneficiary. Through The Vincent Astor Foundation, decades of funding was provided for schools and educational entities along with a host of other New York-based organizations. Benevolence at the Astor level has far reaching effects regardless of recipients’ nature or function. The existence of well-funded, stable non-profits can create jobs and other economic activity stimulating indefinite and immeasurable benefit to the communities served. The actions of Anthony Marshall and Francis X. Morrissey thwarted the opportunity which Astor assets were designated to provide.
Other lost opportunity is tied to some of Brooke Astor’s long-tenured employees who were designated to receive bequests should they still be in her employ upon her death (which was an anticipated status). Instead, as Anthony Marshall exerted increased control over the Astor estate, many of these employees were fired. The transfer of assets via inheritance – an American tradition – fosters future opportunity. Stealing from a person and their designated heirs is a theft of potential success as bequests can promote individual productivity and contribute to overall societal prosperity. The assets hijacked by Anthony Marshall could have provided an enhanced education, seed money for a new business, capital toward a home – all things that feed our economy by encouraging capitalistic productivity and/or financial independence. In her lifetime, Brooke Astor spent yet also preserved assets for the future benefit of organizations and people for whom she cared. What a heinous, evil crime for someone to steal financial resources while simultaneously denying said assets to rightful heirs who hopefully would continue a legacy of fiduciary responsibility, fiscal appreciation and asset maximization.
While recognizing that one is innocent until proven guilty, the alleged grave robbing activities of Anthony Marshall and Francis X. Morrissey are more common than many people realize. From all accounts, Anthony Marshall received a generous share of assets from the Astor fortune. It appears that, to him, it was not enough and justified a betrayal of the fiduciary position with which he was entrusted. Over a span of decades, Brooke Astor was known for numerous charitable works and good deeds. How ironic that her one last gift to the public may be helping to expose modernized versions of Involuntary Redistribution of Assets actions by grave robbers and other property poachers targeting estates of Astor-nomical sizes as well as those of more modest proportions.